One Department Implodes, Another Advances

After U. of Chicago demotes a prominent child psychiatrist, he and 7 colleagues head to Illinois-Chicago.
May 17, 2005

There's a temptation, given the academic discipline involved, to try to lay the child psychiatry division at the University of Chicago on the couch to try to figure out how things went awry. But because many of the parties aren't talking beyond the niceties that are typical in situations like this, the salient fact is that about two-thirds of the department's key staff members will pack up their research grants and teams and head crosstown to the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Monday's announcement by Illinois-Chicago of the migration caps several months of turmoil for the Chicago department, which was set off by the university's decision in November to remove Bennett Leventhal as chief of the child and adolescent psychiatry section. 

A nationally recognized expert on autism, Leventhal had headed the child psychiatry section for 15 years and had been acting or co-chairman of the entire psychiatry department in Chicago's medical school for much of that time. But days after the medical school selected a new chairman for the psychiatry department last November, Leventhal was stripped of all administrative duties and told that his contract as a faculty member -- like most professors at Chicago's medical school, he is not tenured -- would not be renewed. 

Chicago officials declined to comment at the time on the decision about Leventhal, citing the university's policy of not discussing "specific personnel actions" except with the involved individuals. But the furor surrounding its treatment of Leventhal led the medical school to issue a statement in January which it called the decision "part of an effort to create a strong and consistent new leadership structure in a department that has experienced administrative turnover."

The statement also said that experts inside and outside the medical school had concluded that the department "was in need of new leadership, and that without a significant shift in leadership it would be difficult to continue to attract first-rate new faculty, as well as top students, residents and fellows."

On Monday, a spokesman for Chicago's medical school, John Easton, amplified on those comments in one way, saying that "customarily, following the appointment of a new chairman, all section chiefs step down and are then reappointed -- or not."

Faculty members in the child psychiatry section, many of whom Leventhal had hired, blasted the medical school not only for what they viewed as unfair and unwise treatment of their mentor and leader, but as one of multiple signs that the university was willing to undermine a highly visible academic program at a time when interest in the psychiatric problems and treatment of young people nationally is escalating. (Among other things, they complained that Chicago had included no office space for the child psychiatry department in its new children's hospital -- which a medical school official explained was because the hospital focuses on inpatient care, and most psychiatric treatment is provided on an outpatient basis.)

Chicago made a conscious decision to edge Leventhal aside, but several people inside and outside the university said that its officials seem not to have anticipated just how loyal the other child psychiatrists were to him, and to continue to work with one another.

Several of them immediately began looking for a situation in which they could continue to collaborate, and officials at the University of Illinois-Chicago took advantage of the situation. Joseph Flaherty, dean of the medical school at UIC, noted in an interview Monday that child psychiatrists at the two institutions had a "longstanding set of collaborations" in research and clinical programs. Merging the two sets of researchers was "not something we really thought of doing until things unfolded the way they did at the University of Chicago."

"At that point," Flaherty said, "it seemed like a good way to unite our two groups of child psychiatrists and research faculty."

On Monday, Illinois-Chicago announced that eight faculty members, along with more than $10 million in federal grants, would move en masse to join UIC's existing Institute for Juvenile Research. Leventhal and Edwin Cook, who studies the genetics of autism, will establish the Center for Child Mental Health and Developmental Neuroscience. Two younger clinicians, Thomas Owley and Marrea Winnega, will manage a clinic on developmental disorders.

Also moving from Chicago to UIC are Mark Stein, a clinical psychologist who specializes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; Kathleen Kelley, a pediatrician and psychiatrist; Alan Ravitz, a forensic specialist who is currently director of inpatient services at Chicago; and Lauren Wakschlag, a clinical and developmental child psychologist who will move her clinic on preschool behavioral problems to Illinois-Chicago.

The departures, most of which take effect July 1, will leave no physicians and just three full-time faculty members behind in Chicago's child psychiatry section, although there are dozens more in the adult psychiatry division.

Easton, the Chicago spokesman, said officials there "knew there was a chance that many people within the child psychiatry group would consider leaving. Dr. Leventhal helped to recruit and nurture a number of talented people who are personally loyal to him and there was a sense that if he left, they would also leave."

He added that "since all eight were leaving for essentially personal reasons, and as a group, there was not an all-out full-court-press to retain them." Easton said the medical school is looking to hire a new chief of the child psychiatry section and that it plans to "build a stronger, more diversified, more coherent department" over time.

Like her colleagues, Wakschlag said she prefers to focus on the opportunities waiting for them at UIC than to dwell excessively on what went wrong at Chicago. 

"This is a really wonderful opportunity to both preserve this highly collaborative, productive collegium and to enlarge it in a setting that has a high level of complementarity," said Wakschlag, who called it the "best of both worlds." 

"I'm delighted," she added, "to be moving to an institution that highly values children's mental health research."


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